The quest to find the perfect veggie burger

In a bid to create a homemade veggie burger that is both healthy and inexpensive, Hattie Ellis embarked on a journey to develop a recipe that would satisfy vegetarians and carnivores alike. Here’s what she discovered…

A good burger is a back-of-the-net solution for busy weeknights as well as parties. Easy, tasty, filling, nutritious and inexpensive, they are infinitely variable in terms of additions and flavourings, and also convenient for advance preparation.

With 26 percent of the UK reported to be following either a plant-based, pescatarian, vegetarian or flexitarian diet, a good veggie burger has become all the more important.

More shop bought veggie burgers are available now than ever before, but they vary wildly in quality and can be expensive. And, they aren’t always as healthy as you’d think.

I want to discover the perfect recipe for a veggie burger, one that’s full of nutrients and provides a satisfying alternative to meat. My quest is two-fold: texture and flavour. A burger should be juicy and hold its shape as it cooks, without being dry.

And, while some of the interest in a burger come from toppings such as gherkins, the burger itself should taste great too. Beefburgers have a good hit of umami, the ‘savoury deliciousness’ that is the fifth taste in food alongside sweet, salty, sour, bitter. My goal is to create an umami burger to satisfy the taste buds of meat eaters and vegetarians alike.

The core ingredients

The first decision is the base. The classic veggie burger base is mashed beans, as in the original bean burger. Another possible direction is grated or chopped vegetables, such as beetroot that are fried to dry them out and concentrate their flavour.

I go for a third way: smoked tofu. It’s super-nutritious and has a nice degree of bounce. To firm it up and get rid of some of the liquid, first wrap the tofu in a double layer of kitchen paper and put in the fridge with a plate and a tin of tomatoes on top for at least an hour. The second element for my base is one of the most intensely umami of all ingredients: mushrooms. Packed with glutamates, they also offer even more juicy bounce in their texture. As with the tofu, you have to get rid of their liquid to make a firm and cohesive burger. I chop them fine and fry with a chopped onion until they have released their water and are starting to brown. It takes about 15 minutes but you can do this a day or two in advance of making the burgers.

How to increase the umami even more? I bring out two flavour bombs: soy sauce and one of the most useful of breakfast pots, ultra-savoury yeast extract — use a small amount and it’s acceptable whether you love it or hate it.

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Let's stick together

The main issue with home-made veggie burgers are how to make them stick together without becoming claggy. Some recipes use mashed potato but I want a more interesting texture. Following a tip from Anna Jones, I blitz half the fried mushroom mixture in a food processor to make a finer, textured mixture that helps hold together the chopped mushrooms. Next comes cooked brown rice and dry breadcrumbs to make a reasonably firm mixture that’s still light. An egg helps to bind it all together. I also add a few tablespoons of plain white flour – but not too much or the burgers can become gluey.

Finely chopped mushrooms are fried with onions to up the umami

Super savoury additions

Still not enough umami, so I add rehydrated, chopped dried mushrooms. Then I add some grated halloumi to get even more savouriness and more bounce. My carnivorous partner declares happiness.

I do one version with some seaweed flakes and it’s a great optional addition but not essential. Onion or garlic granules are another boost. I also try onion salt, a store cupboard favourite of mine, but you have to be careful about salt levels because you’ve already got halloumi, yeast extract and soy sauce. Other options are chilli flakes – chipotle chilli flavours for an extra-smoky hit – or a half teaspoon of smoked paprika. Parmesan is rich in umami and you can add a couple of tablespoons to the burger mix, but it's not a vegetarian cheese. Parmesan style vegetarian options are available.

The cooking (and serving) process

Chilling is essential to the firming-up process. In a hurry, I freeze some of the burgers for 15 minutes before cooking. It doesn’t work. Longer chilling makes a big difference — overnight is best.

Finally, I discover that coating the burgers with some polenta or cornmeal helps to hold the shape a bit better in the pan and gives a nice crunchy texture.

Because I’ve gone for firm-but-not-rubbery, I fry my burgers in a pan rather than risk a fatal collapse into barbecue flames. I spread a little butter onto the burger buns (olive oil also works well), then toast them in my frying pan or – even better - on a griddle or barbecue grill, to add an extra element of smoke.

A burger is, of course, also about toppings. Alongside mayonnaise, chilli sauces and ketchup, two good additions are pickles and kimchi.

To emulate the dill-gherkin taste so loved in fast-food burgers, I dissolve one tablespoon of caster sugar in three tablespoons of rice vinegar with a pinch of salt and use it to give a 30 minute marinade for chopped cucumber and chopped dill. Add sesame seeds and seaweed flakes to make more of a side-salad event. To pile on the umami even more, top with some fried or barbecued thick slices of Portobello mushroom.

The health benefits of the veggie burger

The soya beans used to make tofu are an exceptional form of vegetarian protein. Unusually for a plant, they have all the essential amino acids we need and this makes tofu a good nutritional choice for a veggie burger. Soya beans can have serious eco-issues but the ones used to make food, such as tofu, are unlikely to be from deforested land, unlike those that can go into animal feed. If you’re concerned about issues relating to monocultures and pesticides, check out the eco-credentials of your brand.

As well as offering fibre, protein and micronutrients mushrooms have a relatively short shelf-life and are one of the ingredients that can often be found at a reduced price in supermarkets. If you buy them like this, cook immediately for the base and keep it in the fridge, covered, for up to a few days before making the burgers. If you’re using dried mushrooms for extra umami, there’s no need to go for fancy porcini. Get the most basic kind. Ditto for the breadcrumbs.

My ultimate umami burgers cost less than premium fake-meat burgers. I find their taste and size good enough that one is sufficient per person. To make them cheaper, skip the halloumi and the dried mushrooms. To make them vegan, add more breadcrumbs and flour and skip the egg and halloumi.

Plant-based promises with Giles Yeo

Now make Hattie Ellis’ ultimate umami veggie burger.

Originally published July 2022.